WHILST YOU were busy watching RWC 2011, it may have escaped your notice that the first six rounds of the Aviva Premiership took place. The biggest difference for the competition during a World Cup is the reduction in media coverage, though crowds usually hold up quite well.
This time around there was some deterioration in numbers compared to the same period last season, including significant declines at Wasps, Newcastle and, strangely, Exeter and Saracens, both of whom made good starts to the season. Once again it goes to show that team performance isn’t a guaranteed way of increasing your gate.
On the other hand, Gloucester’s gates are up, Sale’s are steady and Harlequins have experienced a marginal decline. The traditional Big Two of Leicester and Saints have deteriorated a little but are still the envy of the other clubs.
Most commentary on club message boards centred on the number of players away at the World Cup. The Tigers’ poor start has been the main story and much was made of the gaps in their squad. Yet it could be argued that it was injuries as much as call-ups that hampered Richard Cockerill’s charges. You can plan for the World Cup to some extent but the Tigers copped an almighty injury list at the same time, which left even the biggest and strongest squad in the league looking thin.
Northampton’s poor showing was more surprising. Many felt they had addressed their strength in depth over the summer, but the loss of their five England players and Soane Tonga’uiha hit them harder than expected and the same will happen over the Six Nations.
The Tigers will keep the likes of Marcos Ayerza, Horacio Agulla, Alesana Tuilagi, and probably Thomas Waldrom and Geordan Murphy as well, over this period. So they should be fine, whereas Saints might struggle again in the spring. The majority of teams are where you’d expect them to be in a ‘normal’ season.
Those who are possibly overachieving are the Chiefs, Harlequins and Sale. The first two benefited from having a lot of English players, thereby limiting the number they could lose to the World Cup. Quins had a number close to selection but who didn’t go (Ugo Monye, Chris Robshaw, James Johnston, Mike Brown).
Sale have benefited from a complete overhaul in the past nine months and absorbed the temporary loss of 11 players, if you count the injured Andy Sheridan and Hendre Fourie. Funnily enough, we haven’t heard much complaining from Steve Diamond. He has planned well.
Every four years we hear the same debate about whether the Premiership should be suspended during the World Cup. Frankly, it’s hard to see how it could be, without playing more games over the Six Nations – which amounts to the same thing. But I’d wager a tidy sum that the final placings will have a familiar look.
Anyway, next time around the debate will be academic – the IRB never allows domestic rugby to continue in the host nation during a World Cup.
This article appeared in the December 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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